NEW YORK – The mayor of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, which was devastated by the 2011 tsunami disaster, stressed Monday how resilience and inclusivity are necessary for rebuilding the city as he spoke at the United Nations to mark World Tsunami Awareness Day.
“The inclusive and accessible society to my knowledge is where no one is left behind. We want to be a model city of inclusive society globally,” Rikuzentakata Mayor Futoshi Toba said at a high-level event co-sponsored by the tsunami-hit countries of Japan, Chile, Indonesia and the Maldives.
Toba, 53, who lost his wife and many colleagues in the disaster, recalled how a 47-foot wall of water triggered by a major earthquake “completely wiped out” his city, claiming 1,800 lives.
“The degree of destruction was beyond anything I had ever seen. As mayor I knew I had to show my leadership, I had to serve my community,” said the chief of the city, which has a population of about 19,000.
In a hushed conference room, Toba shared his personal experiences in the immediate aftermath of the natural disaster on March 11, 2011 — just a month into his then-new job — explaining how he spent the night on the city hall rooftop with 126 others.
The mayor remembered how people banded together to help each other find loved ones and shared what little food and water they had in the days following the catastrophe.
“Recovering from the massive devastation is a long and difficult process,” he said. “There is no manual telling us what to do or how to do it. We learned along the way.”
As part of the reconstruction process, which includes projects to elevate the city center and place seawalls around the bay facing the Pacific, Toba stressed the importance of rebuilding to higher standards, improving resilience and creating an inclusive society that is accessible to all.
In addition to the tsunami-stricken countries, the U.N. Development Program and the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction co-organized the event, which was also attended by diplomats and other U.N. officials.
“On the human side, strengthening public awareness and preparedness are the only avenues available and must be pursued with every effort at our disposal,” said Maria Espinosa Garces, president of the U.N. General Assembly.
She echoed Toba’s sentiments by stressing the importance of leaving no one behind, including those most vulnerable — women and children, the elderly and people with a disability.
Blake Inscore, mayor of Crescent City, California, told reporters how his community became a sister city of Rikuzentakata earlier this year after American high school students proposed cleaning up and returning a Japanese boat belonging to a Rikuzentakata high school that had been found in April 2013 on the beach at his city.
The vessel, which had apparently been floating across the Pacific Ocean for two years, was returned in October 2013. The two Pacific-facing cities are also linked by being prone to natural disasters.
“(World Tsunami Awareness Day) is not just about Japan or Indonesia or the United States, it is about a global community coming together and saying we need to prepare our people, we need to educate our people,” Inscore told reporters after the event.
“Everybody needs to have the opportunity to be safe and to have that hope of being able to face the uncertainty of disaster knowing that together we can do those things, we may not be able to do them alone, but we can do them together and we need to see this as a human issue,” he said.
The United Nations designated Nov. 5 as World Tsunami Awareness Day in 2015 after the General Assembly adopted a Japanese-led resolution.